Homily, July 3, 2016, Proper 9
Isaiah 66:10-14 Psalm 66:1-8 Galatians 6:7-16 Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
As I was reading the texts for this week, what stuck out to me was joy. Isaiah says, "Rejoice with Jerusalem." The Psalm says to shout with joy. Which is sort of appropriate for the Fourth of July weekend. Happy Independence Day weekend, by the way! I don't know about for you, but for me, the Fourth of July weekend was always a fun weekend. When I was a kid, I celebrated the independence of this nation by stuffing my face with hotdogs and cake, and by feeding my inner pyromaniac—lots of little things that go boom! Wheee! The only memorial of those celebrations were sugar crashes, sun burns, and scorched earth. You know, fun. The idea, of course is that we were celebrating our country and its freedoms.
One might get the impression that the reading from Isaiah is also about patriotism: "Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her—that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast, that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom." I won't even go into the Freudian turns and twists of this passage. But certainly, the patriotic language is not foreign to our ears. It doesn't sound so different from "God Bless America!" "My Country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing!" But that's not what the author of Isaiah 66 was doing. Maybe you noticed that I left a little line out: "Rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her." By the time our author is writing these lines, Jerusalem is in ruins, crushed by the Babylonians. In the midst of mourning, the author of these lines does not give in to despair, but rather cultivates joy. In response to utter tragedy, the author of this passage says to rejoice.
In Jewish tradition, it is expected that one cultivates joy on the Sabbath and on certain other festivals. As one author puts it: "The Sabbath is no time for personal anxiety or care, for any activity that might dampen the spirit of joy. ...[T]he Sabbath was given to us by God for joy, for delight, for rest, and should not be marred by worry or grief" (A. J. Heschel, Sabbath, 30).
The Desert Fathers of Christian tradition—those austere, holy persons of the early years of Christianity, some of whom only ate raw vegetables or prescribed for themselves other harsh ascetic practices—no hotdogs and DEFINITELY no cake for them—the Desert Fathers also recognized the importance of cultivating joy. There is a story about a certain Father Apollo, who lived in the Egyptian desert. His disciples apparently only ate one meal a day, after Eucharist. I would think they'd be pretty miserable! If it were me, I think I'd be hangry most of the time. But, the story goes right on to say, "Nevertheless, one could see them in the desert filled with a joy and a bodily contentment such as one cannot see anywhere else. For nobody was gloomy or downcast." And if anyone did seem a bit glum, Father Apollo would counsel them, until the root of the joylessness was discovered.
Both in Jewish tradition and in our Christian tradition, cultivating joy has been part of who we are and what we do. Because fundamentally, cultivating joy is about desiring God, trusting in God, hoping in God. Enjoying God. That's why today's Psalm says: "Be joyful in God all you lands!"
But, as another Psalm says, "How can we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" Right now—and very often—there does not seem to be much to rejoice in—there's Orlando, of course, but also now the murder of hostages in Bangladesh, a bombing in Istanbul, a perplexing Brexit, and that's not even to mention the dubious fate of Chicago Public Schools, nor to mention the daily rise of gun violence in this city. Sometimes it seems we don't have time for joy; there's work to do. Or even worse, it just doesn't seem appropriate to find cause for joy. We feel that we are not free to rejoice. But that is precisely why we need to cultivate joy, to seek it out, to find the freedom to be joyful.
As most of you probably know, Elie Wiesel died yesterday. Most of you are probably familiar with Wiesel's work. A survivor of the Shoah, the Holocaust, author of several books, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. You probably are familiar with his autobiographical story of the Holocaust, Night. Wiesel was determined for the rest of his life that he would never allow the world to forget. As he constantly said, he lived to bear witness. "I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." Wiesel was not a perfect spokesman for these words, but he knew the horrors of the world, and our responsibility to confront them.
One might easily get the impression that Wiesel was a man with little time for joy. He was a serious man, to be sure. But he also was devoted to the Hasidic way of Judaism. And one of the hallmarks of Hasidic Judaism is joy. I was listening to one of his lectures yesterday, and he told a story, as he is wont to do. It goes like this: A Hasid came to a rabbi, and he said, "Rabbi, I feel crushed, so terrible is my anguish. I have so many obligations, so many mouths to feed, so many deaths to mourn. I cannot bear it any more. The old Rabbi took his hand and asked, "Do you want me to weep for you? To mix my tears with yours? Is that what you want?" "Yes," whispered Hasid. "At least, it will make me feel better. I will know that you at least understand me, that you share in my suffering. Weep for me, then. Weep with me, and I will thank you. I will thank you with all my heart. But the Rabbi looked at him for a long moment, and shook his head, No. That's not what we must do. Weeping is no solution. Instead, I shall sing. And you shall sing with me. I know it's not easy, and why should it be? But we shall sing nevertheless. As Wiesel says, there was no good reason in the world for them to feel better, but they did.
Cultivating joy is contagious, and it doesn't just happen when we feel like it. We need each other. To remind each other of the source of our joy—which is not the same as mere happiness. Sometimes, our yearning for God, for justice, for peace, flows from the crucifixion, from pain and oppression, and we cry out, "How long, O Lord?!" But cultivating joy reminds us of the joy and hope of resurrection. God is making all things new, if we will only let ourselves see it. If we will only sing together. The crucifixion and the resurrection go hand-in-hand. No resurrection without the indelible memory of catastrophe; no crucifixion without the hope and joy of new life, without the recognition of beauty in the world and all around us.
In the wake of Orlando, a number of folks posted pictures of people coming together. Of Orthodox Jews visiting a gay night club in a show of solidarity and compassion, of Muslims holding vigil at Pulse. Communities coming together to grieve together at the Stonewall, and in Boystown. One of my Canterbury Northwestern students was in NYC, and he went to the Stonewall, where he took a picture of the crowd that had gathered, embracing each other and showing each other grace. The caption on the picture said, "Love wins. Love will always win." Cultivating joy.
Whenever we perceive, if only out of the corner of our eye, the beauty of the world, in our children's voices, in sunlight-bathed flowers, in an absolutely gorgeous Fourth of July weekend, and whatever it is that gives us delight—we cultivate joy. And we should be witnesses of that joy, giving thanks for it as often as we can. As Wiesel once said, "If the only prayer you say throughout your life is 'Thank you,' that will be enough." Because in those simple words, the free love of God who is absolutely free of anger toward all creation, wells up, surprising us with the freedom to find our joy, too.